2021 Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft Preview: Florida Panthers

Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft
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The 2021 Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft is coming soon. Even though the playoffs are still going on, most teams will be starting to focus on the offseason as we get further into June. The Seattle Kraken will start their inaugural year in 2021-22, and with that comes the expansion draft. There are plenty of opportunities for this Seattle team and the draft, which will take place on July 21st.  It is sure to be thrilling! While it will be hard to replicate the success of the Vegas Golden Knights (who are exempt from this draft) first season, fans should be excited regardless. Each day, Last Word on Hockey will go through a team and preview all the possible protection, exposure, and trade scenarios. Today, we look at the Florida Panthers preview for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. 

Seattle Expansion Draft Option for the Florida Panthers

The Outlook

The Florida Panthers blew expectations out of the water this season with a first-time general manager and a significant overhaul in on-ice personnel. The Panthers were not supposed to finish fourth across the entire league in points. Yet, the craziness that is 2021 continues to happen. Nonetheless, the Florida Panthers have set themselves up nicely for the future. Not only did they become a younger team, but they also became harder to play against—one of their most significant flaws from past seasons. Bill Zito has begun creating a culture no Florida Panther team has ever seen before. Despite their first-round exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Panthers are on the right path, having begun the long and tedious process of winning the Stanley Cup.

NHL free agent frenzy

Yet, before they can do that, they have another obstacle to overcome – the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. After countless general managers made mistakes with the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft, Bill Zito will not be one of those guys. While some of the moves Seattle and the rest of the league make may not pan out for a few years after. general managers have had one eye on this process the entire season. With that, we cannot see into the future, but we do know one thing for sure: Zito will go with the 7-3-1 protection list. When asked whether it was a “no brainer” to choose to protect 7-3-1 over 4-4-1, Zito responded with, “It’s not a tough decision for me.”

Protection List: Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau (NMC), Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, Alexander Wennberg, and Patric Hornqvist.

As one of the more straight and narrow teams on who they would protect, there were a few names that honestly could go either way. Protecting Barkov, Huberdeau, and Verhaeghe were absolute givens. On top of that, Bennett was able to reinvent himself after leaving the Calgary Flames altogether. And it seems like Duclair was finally able to find himself a home with the Panthers. With both guys turning 25 and 26-years old by the start of next season, there is no reason not to protect them. Both are young, cheaper, productive forwards that have helped this team win games.

Now, here is where things become way more interesting. With the first five forwards obvious to protect, the last two spots were not as easy, with Zito bringing in Hornqvist to help not only on the ice but also in the locker room. You would think he would be protected. Yet, he is a 34-year-old player making 5.3 million a year. Of course, he has been worth every penny; you never know with a guy of that age and cap hit. Despite all of that, the culture that Hornqvist has been monumental in fixing, he will not be going anywhere.

Last but certainly not least, protecting Alex Wennberg may raise some eyebrows. While he is a UFA at the moment, he is one of Zito’s guys. The only other option of who to protect would be Frank Vatrano. In comparison, you could probably go either way with these guys. Zito is going to stick with his guy and for a few reasons. Vatrano has been great for the Panthers, but this needs to be looked at objectively. Wennberg is younger, cheaper, and playing better at the moment. The Panthers have a ton of promising prospects that could very easily replace Vatranos’ speed. Finishing the season seventh on the team in points, the recent biases will most likely save Wennberg from Seattle.

Protection List: Defence and Goalie

Sergei Bobrovsky (NMC), Keith Yandle (NMC), Aaron Ekblad, and MacKenzie Weegar

Two of these players are worth every single penny and then some. Two of the players the team would trade if they could. Regardless, they must protect them all. One of the most challenging things the Panthers will have to deal with moving forward is Bobrovsky’s contract. While Keith Yandle is not much better, at least his contract is closer to ending than Bobrovsky’s.

Nonetheless, Bobrovsky looked much better this season. Even though the Panthers must protect him, fans everywhere should be trying to see the glass half full. Even if he does become the backup within the next year or two, a two-time Vezina-winning goaltender is your backup? It could be worse.

Moving to the defensive side of things, Yandle is another forced protection. After being scratched during some playoffs game, this next season will be an interesting one for Yandle. At the same time, no one should be surprised if Zito trades him. His contract and value, as of late, probably is not worth it for many teams. While he can still play, he has slowed down tremendously. Maybe Zito can persuade Ron Francis to take Yandle off the Panthers’ hands, but the odds of that are very low.

To turn things more positive, the Panthers are being forced, in a good way, to protect some of the best defencemen in the league last season, with both Ekblad and Weegar coming off breakout seasons. The Panthers have the luxury of protecting their pillars on defence. Weegar was one of the best defencemen at five-on-five play. Ekblad was playing even better. Again, another no-brainer for the Florida Panthers.

Left Exposed

When it comes to the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, many viable options are left unprotected. With that, the most significant player that the Panthers have been forced to leave exposed is netminder Chris Driedger. Despite only his second season playing more than one game. Driedger essentially stole the starting position from Bobrovsky by the end of the season. With only 38 career games, a 21-9-4 record with a .929 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average. Driedger’s contract alone should get Seattle excited. While he is due for a pay raise, considering his cap hit was only $850,000 last season. It won’t be an enormous pay raise which is what Seattle wants. Even though he has been playing like a trustworthy starter, giving him a full workload has yet to be tested. Proving that he is more than capable; you don’t know till you know. You know?

While Driedger is not the only goaltending option out there, he is arguably the best “bang for your buck” choice. The Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Vancouver Canucks are all forced to leave an excellent goaltending option available. Seattle could create a lights-out one-two punch in the crease.

On the defensive side of things. The Panthers have left Gustav Forsling available. Stealing him off of waivers, Forsling has grown leaps and bounds this season, a viable option for the Kraken. A 25-year old puck-moving defenceman who will not take much from your cap is something every team would want—especially a brand new one. At the same time, there may be more viable or experienced options out there. Forsling is a player that the Panthers could regret not protecting.

On offence, both Mason Marchment and Noel Acciari are attractive options for the Kraken. In contrast, Marchment may not be as productive as some people would like. He brings a physical element to the game that helps the guys around him—finding himself on the top line more often than not. Marchment would use his size and skill to create opportunities for his linemates. Battling in the dirty areas where guys like Barkov and Huberdeau may hesitate to go.

On the other hand, Acciari was a steal for Florida a few years ago. He would be a steal for Seattle as well. Despite turning 30 years old at the end of the year. Acciari has played some of his best hockey while in Florida. A true team guy, Acciari brings a ton of x-factors to the locker room to help the boys get going.

Alternate Options

Like anything else, if there is one way to do it, then there is another way to do it as well. The fact that the Panthers are forced to protect Bobrovsky leaves them with one more minor decision during the expansion draft process. Yet, if Zito is the true mastermind that we all believe him to be, he must trade Driedger before the expansion draft. Whether he sells him to Seattle in return for something, or to a completely different team, it does not matter. The Florida Panthers cannot let Driedger walk away for free. They cannot do it. He is too valuable to do that. With the way the NHL is trending in the goaltending department, there are way too many teams that require a capable 1B netminder to let him walk for free.

The other option would be to protect Vatrano over Wennberg. As mentioned before, you could seriously go either way. Wennberg is one of Zito’s guys, yet Vatrano is an absolute fan favorite for the Panthers. His physical and chippy style of play combined with his speed and goal-scoring ability, Vatrano would be just as helpful to protect as Wennberg. Take the business side out of it, and maybe he is saved.

Looking Forward

Looking towards next season, the Panthers have set themselves up nicely. Zito has to play the cards he’s been dealt. But, given the situation in front of him, this is the best option for long-term success. The Panthers are coming off their most remarkable season in Franchise history. They can protect the core that helped get them there with promising young prospects at all positions and a group of guys ready to take the next step. The Florida Panther’s rise has only just begun.